And behold, a lawyer stood up to put him to the test, saying, “Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?” He said to him, “What is written in the Law? How do you read it?” And he answered, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind, and your neighbor as yourself.” And he said to him, “You have answered correctly; do this, and you will live.”
“What must I do to inherit eternal life?”
Most of us, if posed this question, would likely respond by sharing the Gospel and maybe even challenging the idea that there could be is anything we could do to inherit eternal life. This, to a certain extent, is as it should be. The Gospel is the good news for all people, and it is only by grace that any of us have the hope of eternal life (which, despite widespread misunderstandings, all orthodox Christians hold to be true).
However, it is curious to note that this is not how Jesus responds in this situation—perhaps because it would have been premature to do so. After all, he had not yet died on the cross and risen on the third day, so there was no “Gospel” yet to be proclaimed. Maybe, but two striking details in the text suggest this is not, at the very least, the full story. First of all Jesus does not even challenge the man’s understanding of works righteousness, suggesting that this is not where his theology needed to be challenged and second of all he actually does tell the man that there is a way for him (and others) to achieve eternal life: by loving the Lord with all his heart, soul, strength and mind and loving his neighbor as himself. “Do this,” Jesus says, “and you will live.”
Of course one could argue that in saying this, Jesus has admitted a standard to which no one could attain in his own strength, so grace is still necessary, but that seems to miss the point of the exchange between the lawyer and Jesus. Furthermore, Jesus follows his teaching with a story that, rather than showing the impossibility of attaining such a standard draws the lawyer and, indeed, us into a deeper understanding of what that love actually looks like.
It is a story with which we are all familiar, widely known as the parable of the “Good Samaritan”, but in my research for this post, I was struck by one commentator’s decision to diverge from this nearly universal practice and refer to it, instead, as the parable of the “Compassionate Samaritan”. It seemed to move away from a general description of the Samaritan as being “good” and towards a focus on his actions as demonstrating compassion. It almost seemed like a demotion, for lack of a better word.
In fact, it was precisely the opposite.
The reference to the Samaritan’s actions as compassionate comes from the text itself where, after the inaction by both the Levite and the priest to respond to the man in need we are told, “But a Samaritan, as he journeyed, came to where he was, and when he saw him, he had compassion.” While on the surfiace the word simply seems to describe the Samaritan’s disposition and actions, in the context of the Gospel of Luke and the whole of Scripture, it carries with it deeper theological implications. It is the same word used in 1:78 to describe God’s covenantal faithfulness in sending a savior for his people and in 7:13 to describe the Jesus’ reaction in the face of a widow’s loss of her only son. The implication is clear: this man, though far from being considered holy and in deep contrast to those who actually would have been considered holy by the culture around them, was in fact that only one who demonstrated the heart and character of God in his actions.
At first glance, this insight may not seem be that revolutionary to most people. We all implicitly know that Samaritan is the only one who exhibits the love of God in his actions and that, as a result, the religious figures are proven to be hypocrites in their inaction. We even know that we are called to be like the Samaritan by showing compassion to all those around us. But the text is not simply suggesting that because we are the people of God we should have compassion on people in need because that’s what our religion calls us to—whether as Jews or Christians. No, the text—Jesus—is making clear that this is how we are called to be and to act because that is who God is, and we are called to be the people of God.
And the implication we see in the inaction of the Priest and Levite is that, inasmuch as we are not showing that compassion to those around us, it reveals how far our hearts are from the heart of God, how far we are from serving him as Lord and reflecting him in our lives.
I wonder how often we are willing to find ourselves in the shoes of the Levite and priest–not only because we sometimes ignore the glaring needs of those around us, but also because we rely on our own sense of goodness and the opinions others rather than on the standard that God has set for a life that reflects His heart and His character. According to Joel Green, because of their associations with the temple, the Priest and the Levite would have been seen as people of exemplary piety whose actions would have been regarded as self-evidently righteous. Their failure to assist the anonymous man would even have been considered laudable in the eyes of many—simply because of who they were—and yet they could not have been farther from the heart of the God they were believed to serve.
While none of us wants to be the Priest or the Levite in the story, the fact is we all find ourselves acting (or failing to act) in ways that are far from the heart of God; and many of us can even avoid our sin being detected simply because we are surrounded by people who think highly of us and might even praise our sinful actions.
But the deep connection between eternal life and a life of perfect love for God and neighbor suggested by this passage challenges us to see acts of charity and compassion as more than simply a “part” of being the children of God. They are essential to it, because that is who God is, and progeny are meant to exhibit the qualities of their parents.
Do we need grace in order to receive eternal life? Absolutely! It is by grace alone that such an inestimable gift could ever be made available to us sinful creatures who love so imperfectly. But we are called to love as God loves–not because we are Christians, but because we are his people and we are called to reflect his heart to the world around us. The fact that none of us can do so in our own strength should not discourage or foster complacency in us, because for that, too, there is grace. And by that grace, we are conformed to the image of the Son, in whom is found the perfection of all Love (Rom 8:30).
Kathleen Durham is the Vice President of Alighieri Press and serves as an author and speaker.